Exit John McCain

Posted: Friday, March 10, 2000

The following editorial appeared in today's Washington Post:

The extremes of John McCain's candidacy - its allure and also its excess - were on display last week on the eve of the Virginia primary. That day in Virginia Beach, Mr. McCain recalled an experience as a prisoner of war, trussed in ropes and left to suffer through the night by his captors. For a reason not clear at the time, a Vietnamese guard appeared in his cell to loosen the knots, and then later to retighten them before his mercy was discovered by other jailers. A few months later, the same guard approached the young McCain and drew a cross in the dirt with his sandal: The two stood together, contemplating it. That cross, Mr. McCain said, has become the symbol of his faith: ``the faith that unites and never divides; the faith that bridges unbridgeable gaps in humanity.''

The story will stick in memory more than most things about the primary campaign; and that in itself goes some way to explain the remarkable McCain insurgency. The candidate offered a blend of past heroism and present pluck, along with an appeal to patriotism and self-sacrifice that stood in sharp contrast to the moneyed cynicism of politics. It was an appeal delivered with humor and with an infectious grin, but also sometimes with a hard-eyed passion. That same day in Virginia Beach, Mr. McCain let his hard side off the leash, lambasting the leaders of the religious right and thereby alienating many of the Republicans whose votes he courted.

Unable to win Republican majorities, the McCain insurgency failed - though the candidate's concession speech Thursday was about as qualified as it could be. He suspended his campaign but did not pull out. He congratulated his rival, George W. Bush, but did not endorse him. He declared his devotion to the Republican Party but also to ``the necessary cause of reform.'' And he hinted that this second cause might turn out to matter more to him.

Having stirred so much excitement, driving turnout up and turning the apathetic into eager volunteers, Mr. McCain seems possessed of an entirely human urge: to bottle the magic of the moment, to preserve it somehow, all in the hope of uncorking it at some future opportunity. Quite how to use it is not so clear. Mr. McCain may try to turn his following into a drive for campaign finance reform, or into efforts to discredit dishonest campaign methods. But his crusade to lift the tone of politics was in part an abstract thing: You could feel the possibility of progress fleetingly in the atmosphere of his campaign events, but that feeling will be hard to recreate if Mr. McCain's campaigning days are over.

George Bush and Al Gore already are fighting over the centrists who flocked to the McCain standard. As they compete for those votes, they will be forced to acknowledge the central lesson of Mr. McCain's campaign: that a sizable chunk of the electorate is hungry for something other than the spindly compromises and uncompromising spin that seem to dominate politics.

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